Last Updated: 2019-03-18
A couple of Cinderella hopefuls start the night in Dayton, but the second of the First Four play-in games has tremendous potential. The Belmont Bruins, who lost in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament final to Murray State, were picked as one of the last four teams in the field. So, too, were the Temple Owls, who bowed out in their first AAC Tournament game against Wichita State. The committee looked favorably on these two squads, but only one will make the field of 64.
Belmont is a three-point favorite in this one with a total of 155 in early betting action. University of Dayton Arena has been the home of the First Four since the field was expanded to 68 and the city usually comes out well in support of these schools looking to create a basketball tale as old as time in March Madness. The winner of this game will be a very live dog against Maryland in the 6/11 game on Thursday night in Jacksonville.
A weak bubble allowed Belmont to get into the tournament, even though the Bruins squandered a double bye and an easier path in the OVC Tournament. Belmont beat Austin Peay by 16, but then lost to Murray State by 12, as Ja Morant dropped 36 points in that game back on March 9. The rest situation could be interesting here. Belmont has had no idea about its fate for well over a week. Temple’s wait only dates back to March 15.
Belmont deserves to be in the field. The Bruins played a top-100 non-conference schedule per Bart Torvik and went 26-5 during the regular season. This is a top-20 offense nationally for Rick Byrd’s bunch, including the second-best two-point percentage field goal rate in the country. Belmont scores and scores efficiently. Furthermore, the Bruins were 2-2 in Quadrant 1 games and 3-1 in Quadrant 2 games, which is a good mark for an OVC team.
This is Belmont’s first Big Dance appearance since 2015. Even though Belmont has seven NCAA Tournament appearances dating back to 2006, the Bruins are still in search of their first NCAA Tournament win. Of course, they’ve played against four #2 seeds, a #4, a #3, and a #6. This situation is a little bit different.
Dylan Windler is overshadowed by Ja Morant in the OVC. Morant deserves a lot of accolades and attention, but Windler, a 6-foot-8 senior, averaged 21.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per contest this season. He did struggle a bit against top-100 teams with a .596 two-point percentage and a .209 three-point percentage. For the season, Windler was at .672 and .426, respectively, so he’ll have to get it together for this one.
Windler may have to shoulder more of the load if star freshman Nick Muszynski is unable to go. He missed the OVC Title Game against Murray State with an injury after playing just 20 minutes in the semifinals against Austin Peay. The 6-foot-11 OVC Freshman of the Year has been hobbled with an ankle injury. He’ll get more bites at the apple, but seniors Windler and McClain won’t. No teams lack motivation in March Madness, but Belmont does appear to be the more desperate team.
Temple’s appearance in the field is a sign of how much the committee respects the American Athletic Conference. Per most rankings sites, Temple is the third-lowest team to get in, with Arizona State and St. John’s, who are also in a play-in game, below them. The one-and-done to Wichita State in the AAC Tournament felt like a kiss of death, but instead of being the top seed in the NIT, the Owls are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
Temple’s defense will be in the spotlight here. Belmont is long and athletic and has one of the country’s most efficient offensive units. Temple has the better defense. This is one of the more well-rounded teams that Fran Dunphy has had, as the Owls are top 80 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, something that the Temple program hasn’t managed since 2012.
The best thing about the Temple offense is that the Owls don’t turn the ball over. Temple ranked 22nd in TO% on offense in the regular season. Of course, the Owls then turned it over on more than 20 percent of their possessions against Wichita State, so that went up in flames. Senior guard Shizz Alston Jr. has had at least 20 points in each of his last eight games, so he’ll likely get his, but the supporting cast, including junior Quinton Rose will have to step up.
Pick: Belmont Bruins -3
The Bruins are just a small lean at this point, but would be a full-fledged play if Muszynski is able to go. Temple really struggled to defend at the rim during the season. If the big man is able to get around on that bum ankle, he’ll change the dynamic of this game. If he can’t, Belmont still has enough weapons to get by, but it will be a lot tougher.
Both teams play at an above average pace and take tremendous care of the basketball, but possessions matter so much in March and these are two veteran head coaches, so the under could be worth a look.
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